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October 24, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

A Tale of Two Right Fielders

by Jay Jaffe

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Number nine on your scorecard, right field can sometimes seem like an afterthought in the lineup. Never mind that it was the position of Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and (since it's the World Series) Reggie Jackson; in Little League it's a place where a team stashes a less talented player, a Timmy Lupus, in the hopes of his avoiding the spotlight. Neither the Phillies' Jayson Werth nor the Rays' Rocco Baldelli qualifies as either a Lupus or a Reggie, but the two right fielders nevertheless found the spotlight all night long in Game Two of the World Series, and not always for the better.

Even given the unlikelihood of this Fall Classic matchup at the outset of the season, both players took unlikely paths to the World Series spotlight. Playing for the fourth organization of his career, the 29-year-old Werth set career highs in several categories, generating 7.1 WARP via a .273/.363/.498 performance with 24 homers and 20 stolen bases in 21 attempts. He began the year as the short half of a platoon with Geoff Jenkins, but found extra playing time when center fielder Shane Victorino strained a calf muscle in mid-April, and his hot bat earned him a larger share of playing time until he was felled by an oblique strain in late May. Fortunately for both him and the Phillies, he missed minimal time, and as he regained his health, he squeezed the slumping Jenkins out of a job; the latter's hip flexor strain in mid-August simply sealed the deal.

Baldelli was an even longer shot to wind up in his position last night. Once one of the team's top players during their dark Devil Ray days, he was plagued by a litany of injuries which limited him to 127 major league games from 2005 through 2007. In mid-March, he was diagnosed with a strength-sapping mitochondrial disorder and placed on the 60-day disabled list, his career in doubt. He began a rehab stint at High-A Vero Beach in mid-June and played sparingly there over the course of a month (11 games, 42 plate appearances) before being promoted to Double-A Montgomery, where he finally played the field for the first time all year. The pace of his rehab was still slow; he played 13 games at Montgomery over the course of about four weeks before finally being activated by the Rays on August 10. Working primarily in the short half of a DH platoon, he hit a respectable .263/.344/.475 in 90 PA but played just 36 2/3 innings in the field.

In the first two rounds of the playoffs, Baldelli made four starts, three of them in the field, and bashed a three-run homer in the Rays' 9-1 Game Three rout in the ALCS. After Gabe Gross made some questionable defensive choices in Games Five and Six which helped bring the Red Sox back into the series, Baldelli got the call against Jon Lester for Game Seven, and he rewarded Rays manager Joe Maddon's faith by stroking a fifth-inning RBI single that gave the Rays a lead they would not relinquish on their way to the pennant.

With Gross frozen out of the Game One start by the odd choice to play Ben Zobrist in right against lefty Cole Hamels, Baldelli got the call against Brett Myers, but it was Werth who began this unlikely duo's wild ride last night. After grounding out in the top of the first, the Phillies' right fielder charged B.J. Upton's single and failed to come up with the ball as it caromed off his glove. Upton wound up on second base because of the error, and Akinori Iwamura, who had walked to lead off the home half of the first, advanced to third. Both would subsequently score on infield grounders, giving the Rays a 2-0 lead against Myers, the latest chapter in Ol' Punchyface's litany of first-inning woes (a 9.00 ERA through 32 regular- and post-season starts coming into the game).

Baldelli's first trip to the plate was an eventful one. With one out in the bottom of the second and Dioner Navarro on first base after a single, Baldelli worked the count full against Myers. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat—an 86 mph slider off the outside of the plate, according to MLB Gameday—Baldelli checked his swing. Clearly he'd gone around, and home-plate umpire Kerwin Danley's hand shot up to call him out. Seeming to think better of it mid-call, Danley instantly appealed down to first-base ump Fielden Culbreth for help, and Culbreth signaled "no swing," so Baldelli trotted to first. Myers was understandably incredulous, and Phillies manager Charlie Manuel had enough of a beef to come onto the field to jaw. "That's a horrible call right there," as Fox announcer Tim McCarver sputtered, and for a change he was right. It wouldn't be Danley's last questionable call for the night.

On the next pitch, Jason Bartlett chopped a swinging bunt that third baseman Pedro Feliz charged but couldn't barehand, loading the bases. Iwamura popped out, and then Upton singled to right field again. Navarro scored, but Werth's perfect one-hop peg—the former catcher still has a gun for an arm—reached Carlos Ruiz in time to nail Baldelli at the plate as he barreled into the catcher, ending the inning with the score 3-0.

Werth had a chance to cut the score to 3-1 in the next half-inning. Ruiz, who would reach base in all four plate appearances for the night, had led off with a double and advanced to third on Jimmy Rollins' grounder. Tampa Bay starter James Shields, who'd escaped a two-on, one-out jam in the previous inning, battled Werth, getting ahead with a first-pitch strike on a fastball, falling behind with balls on the next two pitches before Werth fouled one off to even the count at 2-2. Shields then served up an 84 mph changeup that brought Werth to his knees as he swung and missed. No sale.

After Chase Utley failed to pick up Ruiz as well, Werth's failure to cut the score loomed larger when the Rays scored again in the fourth. Baldelli played a small part in that. Cliff Floyd had singled to lead off the inning, and Navarro followed with another single. Baldelli hit a sharp grounder to Feliz, and a 5-4-3 double play appeared to be in the offing, but Baldelli legged it out and was called safe. It was a marked contrast to Upton's costly failures to hustle in Game One, particularly given Baldelli's health issues and his history of hamstring woes. The extra out allowed Bartlett to plate the run via a sacrifice bunt, expanding the lead to 4-0. The Rays may have had fewer sacrifice bunts than any AL team, but this was a well-timed deviation from the orthodoxy of their approach.

Werth again shot the Phillies in the foot in the fifth as they attempted to climb back into the game. With one out and Rollins on first, he singled sharply to right field to bring up the meat of the order. Utley lofted a shallow fly ball to right, and the charging Baldelli caught it and came up throwing. His frozen rope to Carlos Peña doubled Werth—who had gone halfway to second—off the bag, with Peña deftly reaching back to catch the trailing throw and touch the front of the base as his momentum carried him towards foul territory. That beautiful play ended the inning with Ryan Howard, who had gone 2-for-2 on the night to that point, in the on-deck circle.

Werth's next chance at atonement came in the seventh, with one out and Ruiz on second, having walked and (improbably enough) stolen second on a busted hit-and-run. Facing reliever Dan Wheeler, who got ahead of him with two called strikes, Werth stretched the at-bat by fouling off three of the next four pitches, a couple of which might have been outside enough to be called balls. Werth's generally one of the majors' most patient hitters; among those with at least 400 plate appearances, his 4.51 pitches per at-bat was second only to Nick Swisher. However, Werth has walked just twice in 48 plate appearances in the postseason. The irony here was that after extending his 6-foot-4 frame to spoil a pair of outside sliders on the fifth and sixth pitches of the at-bat, he took a fastball on the outside corner for strike three, another failed at-bat with runners in scoring position for a team that's now 1-for-28 in that situation through the first two games of the series. That was Wheeler's last hitter; he yielded to David Price, who walked Utley but froze Howard on a generous strike-three call via an outside slider to end the threat while continuing his own Cinderella story.

Werth did get one final chance to wash the night's bad taste out of his mouth. With the Phillies having cut the score to 4-1 in the eighth off Eric Bruntlett's pinch-hit homer, the incessantly pesky Ruiz doubled down the left-field line to lead off the top of the ninth against Price. An 0-1 inside fastball appeared to brush Rollins' jersey, but Danley found controversy again, calling a ball instead of a HBP, much to Rollins' dismay. In the end, he blooped out to shallow left, with Bartlett making a nice over-the-shoulder running grab. Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey came out to confer with Price before he faced Werth, who'd led the majors with 16 homers against lefties this season (Howard, for all of his struggles with southpaws, was third with 14).

Werth smashed Price's first pitch to Evan Longoria, but the ball was too hot to handle and deflected off the third baseman's glove and into left field as Ruiz came around to score. For all of his troubles on the night, Werth probably should have been credited with a single, but the official scorer didn't see things that way. At the very least, the "hit" did cut the score to 4-2 and bring the tying run to the plate in the form of Utley; somewhere I could imagine the great Vin Scully referring to him as the Phillies' butter-and-egg man as he stepped into the box. Price bore down and whiffed Utley on three straight sliders, one called, one foul, one swinging. He then sealed the victory by getting Howard to hit into the teeth of the infield's extreme shift, with Iwamura fielding a three-hop grounder to shallow right, maybe 15 feet beyond the infield grass, and then firing to Peña to finish the job and knot the series at a game apiece.

Shields' gritty performance, Myers' tough luck, the umpires' curious decisions, and Price's extended outing may have generated bigger headlines for the night, but the way the focus fell on the two right fielders was a reminder that in a short series, it's not always the stars who make the biggest plays. The Fall Classic has a long history of pivotal moments, both good and bad, from its supporting actors, and it's anybody's guess whom the spotlight will fall on next. That's just part of the fun; here's hoping the next chapter of the story is as entertaining as what we've seen so far.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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